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Rocco Samuele: Contexts Have Shifted

April 25, 2014

At the intersection of JR in Cincinnati & Susan Sontag’s On Photography.

By Rocco Samuele

Inspired by Essays of the 1960s & 70s by Susan Sontag and the “JR” exhibit at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC), Cincinnati, Ohio.

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“In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.”
—Susan Sontag, On Photography

When you emerge from a tunnel pasted with portraits of young men making scary faces, young men who live in Les Bosquets, the housing projects on the outskirts of Paris, you are confronted with a large black and white image of a man whose face is starkly serious. The man dominates the back wall of the gallery. The man is holding a rifle, its barrel aimed at you. The man, the rifle, the kids who’ve got his back are roughly twice their actual size. Plus, he’s holding that rifle. A rifle in your face—real or ink on paper—demands your attention. In 2005, the placard explains, “…the killing of two young men by police set off riots in the Banlieue.” I remember reading about these riots as they were happening. I remember the controversy over the deaths of these young men and the issues facing immigrants in the suburbs of Paris. These portraits are more than mock scary faces on paper.

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“To photograph is to turn people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. To photograph someone is a sublimated murder, just as the camera is the sublimation of a gun.”
—Susan Sontag, On Photography

A month later, when I returned to JR’s exhibit, I realized my mistake. The man in the image is not holding a rifle. He’s holding a camera. My mind had been eager to impose something that was not there. This, in part, is the purpose—to challenge the assumptions we make. JR’s portraits force the eye to notice people who are rarely noticed.

JR starts with a subject. If it is a man, let the man distort his face: angry, vicious, quizzical, etc. Point the camera.

JR starts with a subject. If it is a man, let the man distort his face: angry, vicious, quizzical, etc. Point the camera. Snap the shutter. Print the image large. Paste it in the streets.

But how do you make the temporary permanent? How do you disseminate street art?

The answer: document it. Take a photograph of a print of a photograph. Film a movie of the process. Replicate or relocate the art itself. JR explored these approaches, and many others in his first solo exhibit in the US, curated by Pedro Alonzo and the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati.

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“Urban artivist,” “photograffeur,” “postering arresting black & white portraits of community members upon a variety of city surfaces.”
—words culled from the exhibition blurb that inspired our visit.

My wife and I parked beneath Fountain Square in downtown Cincy. A half block north, we spotted the only building that appeared to be a contemporary arts center: a stack of oblong boxes arranged like logs in a fireplace grate, each box made of stone or glass roughly the length of a city block. An enormous yet tidy game of Jenga. Across the building’s length JR had pasted an image of a human arm, the fist tearing away a poster.

Israelis and Palestinians, the placard explained, each of the same profession—two cabbies, two clergy, for instance—pasted side-by-side.

The exhibit spanned two of the CAC’s five floors. We rode the industrial elevator to the top. After a stint at the children’s exhibit (thirty minutes of magnet mazes and joysticks wired for cymbal crashes and the sounds of crackling electricity), we descended a metal staircase that stretched like a skywalk above the exhibit below. The staircase emptied near a Plexiglas case: 28 mm handheld camera, brush, squeegee.

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“Despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is also part of the usually shady commerce between art and truth.”
—Susan Sontag, On Photography

On the wall, juxtaposed to the Les Bosquets pasting, are the framed color photographs of other pastings JR has performed. I pointed to a photo of a desert landscape: “Is this France? This can’t be France.”

“Look,” my wife said. “Arabic script.”

Behind us (as the gallery-goer turns) we noticed large pastings of faces cantilevered over the floor below. Three, maybe four-foot portraits: one of an orthodox Jewish man playfully bulging his cheeks and crossing his eyes, and further down the corridor a wall pasted, floor to ceiling, in goofy-faced portraits: a man cocking his neck like a curious dog, another grinning like a camel, another splaying his fingers like flower petals about his face. Israelis and Palestinians, the placard explained, each of the same profession—two cabbies, two clergy, for instance—pasted side-by-side. The project: Face 2 Face. “JR challenged Israelis and Palestinians to see if they could tell the difference. We now ask you to do the same. Can you distinguish the nationality in the portraits?”

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“There is no subject the photographer might attempt that could not be touched with pathos. …all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
—Susan Sontag, On Photography

The Wrinkles of the City: Cartageña, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Havana, Berlin. Portraits of elderly faces pasted on dilapidated buildings in urban landscapes. There is, in these images, a thread of time that made me pause: an aged architectural structure beneath an aged human face. In Shanghai, demolished remains of brick buildings surround a thirty-foot pasting of an elderly man’s face, scrunched as if he’s sucking sour candy. The modern city retains its aged soul.

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“The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images.”
—Susan Sontag, On Photography

Sudan, Kenya, India—we descended another skywalk staircase and were faced with a two-story, full-color pasting of a photo of a pasting: a bleach-white image of a woman’s face pasted on a concrete staircase. The objects in the scene—staircase, tangle of power cables, crumbly concrete buildings—are sized roughly to scale. Men haul green crates on their shoulders. Why is this woman—this ghostly image of a woman—pasted on a staircase? My wife and I gaped; we chatted vaguely. “It’s huge,” “impressive,” etc. Without an explanation, my legs itched to move. I was left with the thought: this is a portrait three-contexts removed: woman poses, portrait is pasted, pasting is photographed, printed, and pasted in Cincinnati.

As part of his Women Are Heroes project, JR also pasted hundreds of women’s eyes, enlarged, on the shanties. Hundreds of eyes watch down from the hillside.

JR started as a graffiti artist. In 2001, he found an old camera with a 28mm lens on the subway. He began photographing graffiti artists and pasting photos and xeroxes of photos around the streets of Paris (Expo 2 Rue). His subjects became those who lived on the “margins of society.”

The pasting of the ghostly woman on the staircase took place in Moro de Providencia, the first and oldest favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The woman in question is the mother of children who were brutally dismembered by the Brazilian government. The stairs, according to JR, are where gunfire is regularly exchanged. As part of his Women Are Heroes project, JR also pasted hundreds of women’s eyes, enlarged, on the shanties. Hundreds of eyes watch down from the hillside.

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“Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits divers.”
—Susan Sontag, On Photography

What is it about JR’s work that seems so simple? On CNN there’s brutality in Brazil. Let’s paste portraits there. An elegant idea gives the appearance of simplicity. His body of work appears to be a series of iterations: photographs become xeroxes become street galleries become enlarged portraits, and movies, and documentaries. Faces transplanted from one context to the next, blown up, slathered to brick, documented in various media. As each project leads to the next, the geography becomes broader, the message grows louder. A bond seems to connect “freestanding particles.” The progression is important, how JR’s vision has evolved and how it is powered by heaps of global ambition. And here I am, tangling with his street art in a tidy museum—in Cincinnati.

Rocco Samuele is a writer, technology developer, and university lecturer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has developed exoplanet observation technologies for sounding rocket missions and future space telescopes. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan’s Zell Writers’ Program and an MS in Astrophysics from Ohio University’s Astrophysical Institute. His work has been published in The Astrophysical Journal, Fiction Writers Review, and Opium Magazine, among others.

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